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Relic Advertising and the Power of Employee-led Leadership

Orem—Adam Stoker, one of four who partnered up to buy out the company and who is now the president and CEO of the business they rebranded to Relic, said the buyout—and the company’s subsequent rebranding and move—was a product of a set of improbable circumstances, kicked off by the opening of a Northern Utah location in 2014. The plan was for the second location to allow the then-St. George-based firm to grow, but it caused strain instead.

“Opening up that office led to the previous owner being spread kind of thin, and he had put down some real roots in St. George. Something had to be done,” Stoker said in a recent interview for the Utah Business podcast series, UB Insider.

So, last September, Stoker and his business partners—Jordan Barker, Nick Christensen and former Sorenson Advertising creative director Colby Remund—approached the former owner, Erik Sorenson, about the purchase. When the deal was done, they closed the St. George office and relocated the entire company to the Orem office.

“We needed to make sure we were being as efficient as possible,” Stoker said, noting that account managers still travel down south to meet with clients regularly. “St. George is a very, very important market to our success; it just doesn’t make sense to have a full-time office there.”

While it was changing ownership and moving locations, the four decided they might as well rebrand while they were at it, Stoker said, since the company’s namesake was no longer with the business.

“The question was, are we abandoning our brand equity by rebranding to Relic? In the end, what we decided was with the growth plans that we have, it’s either do it now, or we’ll never be able to do it,” he said. “It needed to change, especially if the identity of Sorenson advertising no longer has a Sorenson in it.”

Employees discussed what they wanted the company’s attitude and mission to be, and came up with a vision of ROI-driven business and the kind of relationship with clients big and small that has in some cases gone by the wayside in modern advertising, Stoker said.

“We don’t feel like we’re like other ad agencies in a lot of cases, so we do feel like a throwback, even though we’ve got young talent,” he said, noting that, at 33, he is the second-oldest in the company. “We feel like we’re a throwback to when ad agencies were created, so that’s why we feel like we’re a relic.”

Because of the change of ownership, the rebrand and the expanded services they began offering, Stoker said they felt it vital to meet with every client around the country to answer any questions or concerns they might have, and to hear what they in turn wanted.

“A change in ownership is always scary for a client and they wonder what the direction’s going to be like, and so we wanted to make sure that we showed them that the change in ownership was going to be a step forward, not a step back. It was very important that we got out to all of our clients and showed them not only are we improving our current service offerings with them, but that we have all these new ones,” he said.

The four partners also decided to eschew the traditional administrative model in favor of employee-led leadership.

“We understand the challenges that employees at our company have and we also understand what the growth projection looks like for an employee to go from entry-level employee to leadership, because we’ve both experienced it and watched it happen,” Stoker said. “It’s not just owners making decisions for the company, but we actually are in some of our major strategy meetings using that employee-led leadership, and that has made all the difference.”

As the company has grown now to 20 employees—Stoker was one of three at Sorenson Advertising when he started with the company six years ago—the model has been adjusted to make sure employees, and leadership, are still communicative and engaged.

“I believe as we continue to grow we’re going to have to assign and appoint more committees that are employee-led that we can basically just approve what they do and have them help us continue to grow the company,” he said. “We have brilliant employees, brilliant people who work for us, and we’ve had some of the best ideas for campaigns or some of the company direction decisions that we’ve made come from entry-level employees, for example, and we want to make sure we don’t eliminate that; we want to make sure we’re able to foster that growth and allow for everyone to have input while at the same time understanding that in the end, the final decision will come from the owners in situations where we have opposing views.”

The model has been a success—although, Stoker is quick to note, they’ve only been doing it for six months. As the company continues to mature and grow, he said, they’ll keep tabs on the model, and adjust as needed.

“For the foreseeable future, as it works, we’re definitely going to want to continue operating this way. If we see that it causes conflict or politics—which so far we haven’t had to deal with, but if it gets to that point, there will be an overhaul, because we don’t want to jeopardize our culture. But so far, so good.”